“What great films would we make if we had a professional film camera, a producer to pour money into our project and a platform?” This is what I said to my classmates, Annie and Fahad, when we were sitting on a bench during class break. We weren’t looking at each other, just staring into nothingness. It was our first semester in film school and we had realized during the first week that we had made a terrible mistake.
The university had an old Camcorder which you couldn’t get because you had to fill a form and have it signed by the dean. It stated that if anything happened to the decrepit thing, we would be held responsible. There was another problem, the government had banned YouTube and the revival of cinema in Pakistan was nowhere in sight. We were doomed. We’d come here for nothing.
While we were bemoaning the state of affairs, Hollywood was going through a transition. George Lucas had announced that he would dump photochemical film in favour of Digital.
Digital was much more viable and inexpensive. With film cameras you had to load thousands of feet of film, load it into the mag and as a result get hardly 10 minutes of footage. Then the film had to be sent to the lab, developed and you would see the dailies the next day. So basically, it was like shooting in the dark. Sometimes you’d be mesmerized by what you saw on the screen, but there were just as many times when something would be either under-lit or out of focus and you couldn’t do anything about it.
A digital camera does not use film; it has a sensor behind the lens. With digital cameras you didn’t need a big crew: you can judge the performance while you are shooting and all you need is a memory card to store the footage. The image quality isn’t as pristine as Film but it was encouraging for aspiring filmmakers. You didn’t need a big budget, you didn’t have to rent a cinema to project your film and you could edit the footage on your laptop.
George Lucas went on to shoot Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace digitally. The proponents of photochemical film called him a pariah. But George was adamant that digital was the way of the future.
The first film shot on digital that I saw was a Danish film The Celebration. The cinematographer was Antony Dod Mantle, who later on shot Slumdog Millionaire and won an Academy award for it. The film was mediocre but I was mesmerized by the camera movement, there was this feeling of lightness, instead of being the audience, you became the characters. The image quality was hazy, misty and kind of gothic. The camera was a Sony DCR- PC3. I immediately realized that big budgets be damned, when the time comes, I’m going to get myself a digital camera for a reasonable price and I’ll put my stuff on Facebook for my friends to see.
Danny Boyle approached Anthony Dod Mantle after he saw The Celebration and asked him for a collaboration with digital cameras. They went on to make 28 days later starring Cillian Murphy. Six years later they went to Mumbai and shot Slumdog Millionaire with Silicon Imaging SI-2K Mini Camera. The rest is history.
By the mid-2000s, most of Hollywood, barring Christopher Nolan, had turned to Digital. Nolan was reluctant to throw away 100 years of legacy of Film for something he deemed inferior. Nolan went on to shoot The Batman trilogy on film and still continues to cling to film. But I think, you have to take a step backward to leap forward.
By 2005 Jim Jannard launched the Red Digital Cinema – a company that made digital cameras with the image quality being as good as film. The idea was to make an affordable 4K camera, fit to shoot a feature film with a lower budget.
In my second semester I scored a merit scholarship and with the money I saved I bought myself a Canon 600d, an 18 megapixel camera which shot 1080p. It didn’t have the same dynamic range as film cameras nor did it have the latitude but it was a start for a 19-year-old rebel who had left his city just to make films. The first script I wrote eventually became my thesis ‘The Suicide Note’. The camera basically helped me in all my assignments.
In 2013, the number of aspiring filmmakers in Pakistan was rapidly rising. Azfar Jafri, a filmmaker from Islamabad shot the horror thriller Siyaah on digital, which went on to become a success. Then came Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto. It gave us the confidence that all was not lost, that the future definitely held something for us. Film degrees in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad were also on the rise, which meant more filmmakers. It was an exciting time.
Cinema had changed, all around the world. Two years down the line the government lifted the ban on YouTube and it opened a huge portal for filmmakers and content creators. Then in 2018 digital came full circle. Steven Soderbergh shot Unsane on an iPhone 7 plus. The sky was the limit.
I must confess, film is superior and some filmmakers will mourn the loss of film but at the same time cinema will benefit from the advent of digital. I remember Martin Scorsese being asked about film versus digital. He smiled and said, “It’s just another tool”. He couldn’t be more right.